How Do We Make Aging Infrastructure Climate-Safe?

Published May 7, 2019

Dr. Susanne Moser is an expert on climate change adaptation. She was one of the facilitators of California’s climate-safe infrastructure working group, which brought together scientists, planners, architects, and engineers to figure out how climate impacts can be factored into infrastructure planning.

In this episode
  • Susi talks about building with climate in mind
  • Susi explains where we're at right now when it comes to infrastructure
  • Colleen asks Susi about her hopes for the future of resilience
Timing and cues

Opener (0:00-0:34)
Intro (0:34-3:00)
Interview Part 1 (3:00-13:05)
Break (13:05-13:42)
Interview Part 2 (13:42-23:19)
Sidelining Science throw (23:19-23:32)
Sidelining Science (23:32-27:31)
Outro (27:31-28:30)

Related content
Full transcript

Colleen: Susi, thanks for joining me on the podcast.

Susi: It's my pleasure to be here and thanks for inviting me.

Colleen: Great. So I wanted to start with the basics. When you talk about infrastructure, I mean, people think of roads and bridges, but are there other types of infrastructure that people might not be aware of?

Susi: Yeah, it's a really good question and actually an issue that I'm sure we'll talk about more. In the efforts I've been involved in we've not only been thinking about sort of these physical assets that you just mentioned, like the bridges and the roads and the culverts and things like that, train tracks, but we actually think of infrastructure as a system. And what I mean by that is, you know, think about a bridge. You can have that piece of metal and wood or concrete connecting two pieces of land, and it's really important to think about what happens on the two sides of the piece of land as well. It's really important to think about the people who use it and to what benefit they use it. It's really important to think about what institutions govern the use and the building, the design and construction of that particular piece of infrastructure.

So, you know, think of it more in this broader term because it allows us to have more points of intervention of making sure these pieces of infrastructure get built right. And I wanna mention just because I mentioned the two pieces of land on either side of the bridge, we also include in this natural infrastructure, or sometimes called green infrastructure. So things like wetlands or forests that actually provide enormous services to us. So it's really the natural and built infrastructure, including even virtual structures like, you know, the internet. Most of us are dependent on cell phone towers that connect via the ether, right?

So it's all of those things combined and all the underlying structures, finances, and workforce issues, and everything else that supports building that infrastructure. So a little more complicated than our typical thinking.

Colleen: Right. So that kind of leads me to my next question, which is, what does infrastructure have to do with climate change and what is climate-safe or climate-smart infrastructure?

Susi: Yeah, also really good questions. So let me first address the issue of what climate change…or what infrastructure has to do with climate change. I think there are really two ways in which we might wanna think about that. One is that depending on what kind of infrastructure we build, it can actually add to the causes. So if we, for example, continue to build highways, we will basically make it possible for people to keep driving fossil fuel driven cars and contribute to climate change, right? So that's one really important aspect. But of course, every infrastructure out in the elements is exposed to wildfires, to floods, to high winds. You know, think of those cell phone towers I just mentioned. They topple, they get cracked in big storms like tornadoes or whatever the case may be. So, it's both the causes and the impact.

And of course, there's sort of a third dimension that's related to that. To the extent we build infrastructure in a way that can withstand these severe weather events and extreme events from climate change, then we are as a community much more able to actually respond quickly and effectively to whatever disaster might come. Think of, you know, the phone lines going out during a disaster. Well, communication is one of the most important things you need in order to coordinate emergency response. So if you don't have that kind of infrastructure that's really problematic. So really it touches on the frontend and the middle and the backend of climate change in all those ways.

And so what's the difference between climate-resilience, climate-smart? You know, we use the term Climate-Safe Infrastructure in a report that we can talk about that I worked on last year in California, but really for us, what that meant is that we are, you know, building infrastructure that does not add to the causes of climate change. So helps with the mitigation and the reduction of emissions and is built in a way that reduces those negative impacts, consequences, and does so in a way that does not only benefit some people, like the rich and wealthy but also low-income communities, communities of color. So in other words, addresses social equity issues.

Right now the biggest potholes are in the poorest communities and those are always the people who suffer the most in those types of disasters. So we wanted to make sure that as we think about making our infrastructure better-adapted to climate change, that we think from the get-go about how does this help the most disadvantaged communities? How can we help make them more resilient and have a better future?

Colleen: So how would you grade current U.S. infrastructure today?

Susi: You know, I don't grade them, but the American Society of Civil Engineers does actually on a regular basis. And you know, people might not know this, but in 2017, which is the last time I believe we had a nationwide grading exercise for our infrastructure, we came out with a D-plus. That's pretty bad. You know, different states update their grading of bridges and tunnels and, you know, all the kind of infrastructure we talked about so far on a interim basis. And like we just, you know, got a new update for California. Bridges came out C-minus, roads with a D, transit infrastructure, C-minus. I mean, it's not great at all.

So, you know, and what's really wonderful about these efforts in grading our infrastructure is that basically the ASCE says, here are the steps you can take to lift your infrastructure from, say D-plus to a C-plus or, you know, to a B or something like that.

So, you know, obviously that typically requires massive investment in our infrastructure, but you know, all of us who have had, I don't know, an encounter with a pothole might actually appreciate that kind of investment.

Colleen: Right. Right. So tell me a little bit about the work that you did on the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group in California. You, I believe were a co-facilitator of that project. So tell me a little bit about that.

Susi: Yeah, that's right. So, in 2016, the state passed a bill in the Assembly, Assembly Bill 2800, or AB 2800, as we say, for short. And basically, that bill is in many ways, it's sort of an outgrowth of a lot of the work that's happening in California where there is growing attention to how do we become more resilient in the face of climate change? And what this bill recognized is that we must do that in the way we think about how bridges are built and, you know, where we place buildings, and all the rest of it. 3But how do you actually do that?

So, you know, it's important to understand a little bit about sort of how infrastructure gets planned and designed right now. Essentially, engineers and architects take or use standards that their professional societies have developed and those standards take account of a whole number of best practices in engineering and material science advances, but they also look at what the climate is like in a particular area and how that needs to be taken account, right? You don't wanna build a bridge in certain locations where the scour is just gonna take it out at the first next storm.

So those kinds of things are built into it. And those standards typically take climate data from the past. They look backwards. They do not take account for, "Okay, we're gonna build this in 5 years and it has to stand there for the next 10, 20, 30, 40, 100 years," right? So in a stable climate, that used to be okay. In a changing climate, that's absolutely not okay. So now we're asking engineers and architects to integrate forward-looking climate signs into their designs, into their plans for infrastructure. And they're like saying, you know, "How in the world are we supposed to do this? Our standards tell us to use a different kind data than that."

So there's enormous barriers to actually integrating, and our working group, which is made up of climate scientists, social scientists as well, and water engineers, you know, transportation engineers, energy engineers, those kinds of experts. We basically sat together to try to work out what are the challenges, what are we using right now, and how do we overcome those barriers to using forward-looking science? And what's I think really important about that effort is that, you know, there are plenty of challenges in overcoming those types of institutional barriers to using climate science. But it was very clear pretty quickly that, you know, we can work those out, we can update those standards, we can come up with new manuals of practices and things like that, but there's a lot more to actually getting climate safe infrastructure built.

So, you know, the phrase that we kept using was, well, it takes a whole system. You need to change to science and how you integrate that. You need to change how we're planning infrastructure, especially with that, you know, I too social equity and including communities in the planning process in a meaningful way. We need to have the right governance institutions to make that happen, we need the financing to make that happen, and then we need the workforce. We need to know, how do you translate a policy like this into contractual language for your engineers who are gonna build this thing on the ground.

Colleen: in actual practice, you got climate scientists, engineers, architects, social scientists, everyone together for this project. In the real world, will that be an easy thing to do or will engineers and architects kind of have their own ideas about things or do you think that that can easily sort of flow moving forward?

Susi: Well, the word easily is what trips me up in your question. There's nothing easy about this.

Colleen: Darn.

Susi: Yeah. If we just had those quick band-aid fixes, right? No. You know, in some ways, what's interesting to me about this is the question of how to connect climate science to practice is actually not a new one. It's a very specific and concrete one that California asks us to focus on. But there has been a fairly, at least over the course of my career, entire career, a sort of trend toward looking at how and under what circumstances and in what ways can science become more useful and actionable to practitioners, right? It's not just we create science, we publish it in obscure journals and, you know, they end up on a shelf and nobody ever reads it. It's actually trying to bring that expertise to bear on real-world challenges.

And I think the more we're headed into climate change, you know, we just don't have the luxury to not use the best knowledge. But it's still a new thing for many scientists, for many engineers to do. You know, we get trained in these disciplinary silos and we talk amongst ourselves. We don't know how to bring these things into society or to other professions, to the applied sciences like engineering and architecture. And so there's a learning process.

And you know, one of the aspects of the work that we had in the AB 2800 working group was to look at what are those, if you will, softer obstacles between scientists and engineers and architects working together?

So I'll give you a very concrete example. The state of California has rules about, basically, their staff going to travel to conferences. And it's very difficult for state employees to just go, "Oh, there is an interesting climate conference. Let me just go to that." Well, it's very difficult for them to get permission to do that, you know, and you can see how this could be potentially abused, but when you make it so hard for people to interact, well, they just miss the chance to build the relationships, to learn from each other, to hear what are your actual problems and what do I have that could help you with that, right?

So, in some ways, and one of the recommendations in the report is that we actually make those obstacles a lot smaller. So there's more opportunities for people to come together. California, for an example, has an adaptation forum every two years. Why can that not be a forum where scientists and engineers and architects are brought together in panels and working groups and sessions, you know, even as a side event where they can just sit together and talk to each other about what they're learning and what they need so that the scientists can do the right science and the engineers learn what's the latest. And you know, that is sort of the beginning to form these relationships.

I have worked on this issue of science policy and practice interactions for the last 25 years, and I tell you, if that relationship building doesn't happen, that science won't flow. It's absolutely essential. So I'm really delighted to see that that made it into a recommendation and that, you know, efforts are gonna be made to help that interaction to happen.

Colleen: So the other aspect of this is that we don't have a lot of time. So how quickly can this happen? I mean, how quickly can you even update or create new infrastructure that's climate safe?

Susi: Oh, that's another good question. So, infrastructure is being updated pretty much all the time. I mean, there's sort of the building the new stuff and then there's the maintenance of that, right? And you know, the thing that we always forget is that if we don't take forward-looking climate science into account, you're gonna have to upgrade and repair and maintain your bridge, your tunnel, your roads a lot sooner. So I almost wanna say there is a time-saving and a money-saving into investing in the building of relationships to enable that exchange so that we build these roads in a better way so that you actually don't have that expense.

Colleen: Do you have any examples where infrastructure has been built without thinking about climate change, and then the flip side of that, where infrastructure has been built with climate change in mind?

Susi: So, I would say to you that 99% of all infrastructure currently being built does not take climate change into account. I mean, that's the outrage, right? Because the standards that still exist right now, you know, that's what…an engineer can only do his or her work and get liability insurance for doing that work when they adhere to professional standards. And professional standards right now say you got to use those standards that look backwards, which is completely crazy, right? But that is the current legal situation around liability and whatnot.

There are a few instances where in buildings, people really try to go to extremely high standards of energy efficiency and green buildings and reducing materials and all that stuff that is important. The health benefits, having cooler buildings, I mean, all of those are not just good for reducing emissions but also good for sort of protecting people from extreme heat. So it works both ways, right? It helps both with climate mitigation as we call it, the reduction of emissions and with adaptation with protecting you from the impacts.

So there are a few examples like that. They're totally voluntary and, you know, typically, this is where someone is motivated to do that. They see the writing on the wall and they wanna just be on the leading edge of that. And what's really wonderful about those voluntary efforts is they tend to set the stage and they begin to lead a trend, and eventually, the mainstream standards catch up with those progressive trends. And then, you know, that'll become the new standard, but that's pretty slow. So there's currently efforts going on in the American Society for Civil Engineers to come up with new professional standards that actually takes very specifically account of forward-looking climate science and how to do that.

So I think there are efforts underway and that will make a huge difference, but unfortunately, most of the public funds we spend on infrastructure still looks backward. Some of the communities that have recently been affected by extreme events like Hurricane Harvey, or Maria, or any of these recent disasters, I'm thinking of the little town of Paradise in California that got burnt down. I mean, people are looking at, you know, how can we not let this happen again because it was so catastrophic? But as I said, if they do that, it is really a voluntary effort at the moment that goes above and beyond the minimum standards that are still looking to the past.

Colleen: So Susi, how did you get hooked on infrastructure?

Susi: It's a good, good question. I am not an infrastructure expert, but I am an expert in bringing people together to talk to each other across disciplinary and academic policy sort of lines. And so my colleague Juliette Finzi Hart from the U.S. Geological Survey and I just put in our hat and said, you know, "We can facilitate this group. We can help them think broadly and comprehensively about that." And apparently, we were convincing enough that we got that job. And it was really a wonderful learning experience. You know, learning the new language of infrastructure engineers and helping them make those connections. And it was really a fabulous year-long project to get them to talk to each other and work together and come up with a really great report.

Colleen: So what has to happen, it's really daunting. What you've just been telling me is that it's a big problem and there's not just one quick fix solution. It involves a lot of different people, different professions coming together and having sort of a shared understanding. Were people that were involved in this working group bummed out by the end of it that it's just such a complex problem? I mean, I'm just wondering how people cope when they actually really understand the full extent of how important and how difficult creating climate-safe infrastructure is.

Susi: Yeah, that's a great question. Well, let me just put it this way. When you talk to a number of climate scientists who've been, you know, really dedicating their lives to understanding the earth system, a really complex thing. And if you're talking to engineers whose mindset is about solving problems, you don't easily flummox these people. You know, I mean, obviously, they very quickly saw and in fact said, you know, "We need to take a systemic look at this problem. We cannot just focus on how to feed a bunch of data into a bunch of plans." You know, they very quickly realized that this problem is much bigger than that.

I think what's much more daunting is to, you know, how do you translate what, I don't know, 15, 16 people in one room working together closely, what they come up with? How do you translate that into thousands of engineers and scientists working together on the outside? And this is where institutions and standards and training and universities, where all of that comes in, right?

Most engineers still go through graduate education without ever having a class in climate science. I mean, that's criminal in my mind. You know, but that is an opportunity where every university that has an engineering department can actually help. Professional societies are working in various ways and there's many of them, and many, many, many, many different standards. So some of them have started to take this seriously and are working on updating their standards, creating climate-sensitive engineering standards.

So, you know, things are happening. I think there's also, you know, in architecture and in engineering in general, people are thinking really hard about adaptive designs. Like, how can we build things in a way that we don't have to like build now for a future we don't perfectly know how it's gonna turn out, but if we build it in a way that gives us a solid basis from which we can build up and adjust later? I mean, those are frontiers of engineering that are really exciting and people are interested in figuring that out.

So I see movement in a lot of places. Again, I cannot emphasize enough how we don't have time to lose, but I feel like it's beginning to happen.

Colleen: So going back to California for a minute, what are the follow-up steps from the report?

Susi: Yeah, good question. So the report obviously was, you know, mandated by an assembly bill. And so we had a requirement that's spelled out in the law to brief the legislature and brief the Strategic Growth Council, which is sort of a cross-agency coordinating council. And we did that at the end of last year. And now that we have a new administration in the state of California with Governor Newsom, we actually are briefing state agencies with their new heads. Just yesterday we had a briefing of the office of planning and research. And the new head for climate and energy was in the natural resources agency.

So, you know, basically we're trying to help the new folks to come up to speed as quickly as possible to understand what we did and what are possibilities for moving forward. In fact, we have 10 recommendations in the report and each one had sort of a whole list of, "Here's some immediate quick things you can do to move on this particular recommendation."

And so we're hoping that that goes forward in the legislature. There's work underway, which I don't know the latest status of, but we heard about it in November when we did the briefing to them of trying to get a constitutional, state constitutional amendment passed that would build an infrastructure fund to actually invest in that kind of infrastructure. And of course, you know, what happened with Paradise is very much occupying everyone's mind right now. How do you rebuild an entire town? Which is a big infrastructure question and a complicated one.

And so that both, you know, focuses the mind and it also distracts him from a report like ours because people who don't have houses and they need immediate help. So I can understand that, but trying to get our thinking to the folks who are working on those kinds of challenges is where we see the openings. Coastal commission is working on adaptation guidance for homeowners. You know, there is an opportunity, right, to bring that in?

So there's lots of different places to get the foot in the door. And even well past our contract was done, we've been working basically with state agencies to try to tell them about the report and what it says and try to make it relevant to them.

Colleen: Well, Susi, thanks so much for taking time to talk to me. I'm feeling optimistic that California once again might lead the way and provide a new type of infrastructure method of working or I don't know what you would call it. But it sounds like the work that you did with the Climate-Safe Infrastructure Working Group has the potential to have some real impact.

Susi: Yeah, I really hope so. And I'm confident as well that some elements of this in some form or fashion will continue. And you know, the amazing thing, people can find all the information we produced and used during our process on the natural resources website still. I encourage everyone to go look for, "Paying It Forward" and looking for those resources and use them in whatever work they're doing. So, thanks for this opportunity to share about it.

Colleen: Yeah, that's great. And I will include the links to that on our webpage so that people can easily find that.

Thanks so much, Susi.

Susi: Oh, it's my pleasure. Thanks for having me.


Sidelining Science: Shreya Durvasula
Editing: Omari Spears
Music: Brian Middleton
Research and writing: Pamela Worth
Executive producer: Rich Hayes
Host: Colleen MacDonald

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